December/January 2023

by Jade Finkle

Sea Mouse: Adhering To The Hepple Theory

by Jade Finkle

Sea Mouse: Adhering To The Hepple Theory

With a collection of releases under their belt and a new album on the horizon, Wellington blues-rock trio Sea Mouse are forging a path as one of the country’s most promising acts in the genre. Thomas Friggens and Seamus Johnson talked with Jade Finkle how they’ve made it to where they are today, giving an insight into the flourishing, interconnected music scene in TeWhanganui-A-Tara Wellington and what it’s like being a Kiwi rock band in the 2020s.

Although Sea Mouse’s line up has stayed mostly slim and steady, Seamus Johnson providing vocals and guitar, drummer Thomas Friggens and Scott Maynard on bass, the band was born out of a community of like-minded musicians. To set the stage we go back long before the band’s official birth in 2017. The stories tie back to a beloved Wellington bar.

“While I was studying, I was part of a couple of bands that used to play at this bar called the Bodega,” Thomas recalls. “I got to know Seamus there, because he had a lot to do with that bar. He used to play there with some of his bands and do a bit of building maintenance, and I worked on the bar sometimes. We used to end up drinking a lot there and having a good time.

“A lot of our friends worked on the bar as well, and the guy who owned the place was really good to us. Some of the bands I was playing in back then had played gigs with some of Seamus’ bands, and the same with Scott.”

It’s worth taking a moment to elaborate on the bands in question because these are hardly low-effort side projects or loosely-assembled jam bands. Scott currently fronts an indie-rock project named Zero Cool, but released EPs as part of alternative-folk group Fuyuko’s Fables as far back as 2011.

Seamus, who brings the heavier and bluesier elements to Sea Mouse, had two profile bands prior. Elston Gun ran for several years, playing gigs, and his follow-up duo Paperscissors also gathered a decent fanbase in the brief time they were together.

Thomas comes from more of a jazz background. He was a member of nine-piece funk/soul group Brockaflower that received a lot of attention in the mid-2010s and kicked off the careers of such household names as Louis Baker and Estère. His other project, John The Baptist, was making waves around the same time, and both acts spent a lot of time at Bar Bodega, mingling and merging, combining people from completely different musical backgrounds.

Bar Bodega permanently closed its doors in late 2016, ending a near 25-year chapter in the capital’s entertainment history. However, Seamus and Thomas have many fond memories of not only the venue, but the Bodega’s owner, Murray Hepple.

“He used to be a tour manager in the UK. He used to work with artists like Craig David, Leonard Cohen, Henry Rollins, AC/DC. Quite big names in the early 90s!

“I remember him telling me one time how interesting it was. He’d have these famous bands who would get in the studio and record an album on money from a label or whatever. Then he’d go on the road with them to tour that album, and by the end of the tour the songs would sound different. They’d had to play them out live and they’d evolved naturally. They would end up hating their recordings because they liked where the song had gone since.”

“I guess we kind’a learned that lesson from him,” Seamus says, referencing the album the band has been working towards over the past couple of years. “I wanted to start tracking it back in 2020, but things kind’a ground to a halt and it just wasn’t financially doable for us. I don’t think it would have worked if we’d tried to do it then, so it’s good we’ve had a bit of time to play the songs in front of people and see how they respond to it.”

“Yeah, we’ve lived with it and demoed it a bit,” continues Thomas. “I don’t know about Seamus, but in all the projects I’ve recorded with in the past, we’ve always just gone in and recorded, never had the opportunity to take the time with the process of the music. With these new songs, on the other hand, we played them out live, demoed a bunch of them. We sort of sat there and listened to them for another year, then we toured them a bit more. So they’ve taken a really different shape. And that’s exactly what Murray used to tell us.”

The upcoming album will be the third in the band’s discography, although they dismiss the first as being more of a mixtape as there are quite a few different styles included.

“I kind’a did that because I didn’t want to be restricted to one genre,” explains Seamus, who mostly wrote and recorded the eponymous debut as a solo project, before the Sea Mouse line up came together and the band as a whole became part of the writing process.

“This new album is a bit different. It’s a lot higher tempo, and a bit heavier maybe. And a bit more psych.”

“Yeah, we sort of had the intention of it being more psych-rock, but it’s also got a bit more – dare I say it? – proggy elements to it,” Thomas smiles. “It’s definitely not prog rock! But the songs just get a bit more weird, in a good way.”

In 2022, they released an EP titled ‘Evil Heart’, which displays a surprisingly different sound to the Sea Mouse albums. It turns out the chaps have been working undercover on a side project named Skeletons.

“Seamus knows heaps of blues,” says Thomas. “He’s studied that in his own time. I said we should start a little sideband and try to do some other gigs around town to create a bit of revenue so we can pump some money back into the main project.

“After the ‘Tropical Fish’ album and tour, the bars we’d been playing at with this blues stuff kept wanting us to play, so we kept doing those gigs and Seamus started writing a few original blues tunes. We thought we should put some of that down. It’s a bit of history and it’s something different. Some of our stuff is pretty full-on, so it can be nice to take it down and have a bit of a groovy moment at a gig that’s not so in-your-face.”

Those tunes turned into ‘Evil Heart’, a collection of raw blues tracks, recorded in a much more stripped-back production style as Thomas describes.

“The guy who recorded that for us, Warwick McDonald, is a bit of a dark horse in Wellington. He keeps a pretty low profile, but he does quite a few sessions. His studio was basically a big shed. He’d been there for quite a while and he knew the room amazingly. Like, we did that EP all in the same room. There’s literally one edit, maybe two, in the whole thing!

“I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. His whole ethos is to let the instruments and the musicians do the work. None of it’s to a click, so there’s a bit of tempo flux, and that was a really nice way to record.”

That ‘Evil Heart’ EP aside, Sea Mouse’s albums are produced and engineered by Toby Lloyd, a world-class producer based in Wellington. Across various studios, he has demonstrated magnificent skill with the band’s material. ‘Tropical Fish’ was recorded at Park Road Post, which, as Thomas explains, is designed more for voiceovers and sound effects. “The room we played in was so dry, and pretty horrible for drums, really, but Toby is very talented at making our music sound huge.”

For the upcoming album, the band has recorded at the new Massey University facility.

“They’ve got this massive room, and you can do a lot of cool, interesting miking techniques to get a really unique drum sound,” says Thomas. There was a whole isolated room for guitars and amps, which was great for Seamus and Scott. We had a lot of options in terms of what we put down for Toby to mix.”

Sea Mouse have toured NZ extensively, and while being in the studio can be more relaxing, performing live has its advantages as Thomas describes.

“We just really like playing, and a lot of the music we play can be pretty cathartic, whether we’re in the studio or live. I’d say the thing about playing live is that you get to have all these unique moments. Like, we open up our songs for improvisation at points.”

“Sometimes things are born out of mistakes,” adds Seamus.

Of course, playing live means opportunities to find new fans and get in touch with various music scenes around the country. Seamus points out that there’s less of a rock scene in Wellington.

“I noticed in the stream stats that until last year Wellington was our biggest city, but now Auckland and Christchurch have the biggest listenerships by quite a long way. And I also noticed that when we played a couple of gigs in Christchurch. I was like, ‘There’s a rock scene here! Like, hard rock!’ Everyone’s wearing leather jackets and denim jackets with patches, and I just don’t see that so much in Wellington.”

Though any overseas excursion is still ahead, their streaming stats show listeners in North and South America, France, Germany and Finland. And they have another new album, in progress.

“We’re trying to mix a couple of songs to be the singles so that we can have some stuff ready to release,” Thomas says. “So be on the lookout!”